In a rigorous class like AP World history, writing is the key to success. For the exam, students are required to complete two long essays in about an hour and a half.
For one of the essays, they are required to read, determine meaning, and organize a number of documents that must be included in the essay.
The very term essay is misleading. It would be more accurate to say that students are writing arguments where they must present and support evidence in order to be successful. Teaching this process is a major challenge to high school sophomores who mostly approach historical writing with the attitude that the best essays are from those who memorize then “brain dump” the most amount of information. From this point of view, the longest essays will usually get the best grades.
Teaching argument writing is a slow process that does not begin at the top of the page. One clever project I encountered during a conference is called the Essay Tower. The Essay Tower project allows students to visualize the building of an argument by using colorful notecards.
In the first week of school, my students learn about the Ancient Egyptian and Indus River Valleys for homework. When they come to class, the students are asked to build a compare and contrast argument over the two ancient civilizations. I separate them into 6 groups and give each group a piece of evidence from their homework.
The topics are divided into India and Egypt but cover similar topics such as flooding, social systems, and life after death. Then the groups are given pink, yellow, and green notecards. After some instruction, the students are tasked to write a claim on the pink card, the evidence on the yellow card and finally an analysis of the evidence on the green card.
With this complete, students are asked to find the group with a similar topic but from a different river valley. When the Egyptian and Indus groups find each other, the students compare the similarities and differences of their topics. Then they write a topic sentence comparing and contrasting both River Valleys on a white notecard. Once this is complete, the cards of each group are put into a single stack where I make 4 small cuts on the tops and bottoms.
The students then insert the cards together so they will stand like a tower with the white cards (the topic) on top of the pink cards (the claim). The yellow cards (the evidence) are next, and the green cards (the analysis) are on the bottom. Now the students can read the entire paragraph they have created from top to bottom using the card tower.
Finally, we create a thesis statement for our compare and contrast essay as a class. Each group is then given an orange card to copy the thesis statement on and then add to the top of their tower.
The Essay Tower project is a great way to teach students how to formulate arguments from the inside out. When we start putting our writing on paper, students can use corresponding colored highlighters to mark the claim, evidence, and analysis in their work. Helping students understand how to build the body of the essay and then work out to the topic sentences and the thesis statement allows them to see the structure of their argument which is a vital skill needed on the AP exam.